Review: Faith in a Hidden God (2017)

Elizabeth Palmer published a reworked version of her PhD dissertation under the title Faith in a Hidden God: Luther, Kierkegaard, and the Binding of Isaac (2017). The work is included in Fortress Press’s Emerging Scholars series, which highlights “innovative and creative” projects from individuals entering the professional phase of their academic careers. The dissertative origins of Faith in a Hidden God are clear, and to a certain degree the work suffers as a result.

Palmer investigates two historical interpretations of Genesis 22–the Binding of Isaac. She attempts to elucidate the anagogical force of Martin Luther’s and Søren Kierkegaard’s interpretations of Genesis 22–that is to say, the ways in which Luther and Kierkegaard move the reader toward (or away from) god.  The anagogical reading differs from the pedagogical, which merely teaches, and the tropological, which extols particular virtues, in that it seeks to “change the parishioner’s vision of god, and thus move the parishioner perceptually closer to (or further from) that god.” The interpretations are not merely scholarly but pastoral in this sense.

Faith in a Hidden God balances in terms of its content. Palmer spends two chapters on an introduction and a conclusion and two chapters each on Luther and Kierkegaard, situating them in their historical context and appraising their interpretations. I found myself flipping through the preparatory chapters for both figures. The material was so deep into the weeds at points that I failed to grasp the significance for the coming material particular to Luther’s and Kierkegaard’s interpretations. Some of the material ought to have been culled from the original dissertation. Nevertheless, the more interesting bits of Palmer’s arguments lies in the interpretations.

Once Palmer makes the turn to their treatments of Genesis 22, Luther and Kierkegaard’s similarities and differences become clear. Neither are concerned with proffering a merely pedagogical interpretation of Genesis; they want their reader to confront god, to peek behind the veil, and to be changed as a result. Luther sought an encounter in Genesis 22 that rendered a “subjective certainty of salvation,” and Kierkegaard (despite his subversive attempts to the contrary) wants to reader to see herself in Abraham and to develop a “life of action … [or] living in works of love” built on, or as the perfection of, proper faith in god. Luther and Kierkegaard offer the reader two varying glimpses of god, both rooted in their perceptions thereof.

For Palmer, the most important aspect of discovering the interpretative principle of anagogy in Luther and Kierkegaard is not so much to understand but, in keeping with anagogy itself, to begin to practice anagogical interpretation in churches today. The pastor and the exegete are responsible not merely for explicating Scripture but for drawing the hearer more near to god. To adopt the practices of Luther and Kierkegaard in this matter is to adopt a mode of interpretation that centers in on an encounter with god–not mere comprehension but prehensility, to grasp the Lord “until you bless me.” Perhaps Palmer’s emphasis on this matter may begin to effect a change in the reading habits of the Academy; perhaps not. The book does not seem particularly well-suited to reaching much of the pastorate, because of its academic density. Most pastors don’t have the time to plow through so much seemingly extraneous information.

Nevertheless, Faith in a Hidden God offers an imaginative working-through of Luther and Kierkegaard as they touch on the binding of Isaac. She presents anagogical interpretation clearly and offers a solid argument in support of its adoption. The book is far from perfect, but it is certainly useful.

I received a complimentary edition of this work in exchange for an honest review.


Review: Your God is Too Glorious (2018)

9780801075667Chad Bird’s 2017 book Your God is Too Glorious is a popular-level take on the common Lutheran theme of theologia crucis–the theology of the cross. Luther articulated two modes of theology:  the theology of glory and the theology of the cross. A theologian of glory, according to Luther, attempts himself to achieve those things that god himself accomplishes in the cross. Whereas god secures redemption and righteousness by means of suffering–a “veiled unveiling” (Bird, 24) of god’s righteousness, a turning the world upside-down–the theologian of glory wants to do those things himself, to accomplishes “glorious” feats for himself. The theologian of the cross sees god at work in the mundane, in suffering, in the poverty of the material world, suffusing the natural realm with grace and holiness, while the theologian of glory seeks out “natural” glory–fame, renown, wealth–in order to glorify themselves.

Bird chastises the theologian of glory–or, better, exhorts the theologian of glory to recalibrate. “Your god is too glorious”–not because god is inglorious but because you’ve misdefined what it is to be glorious. God discloses himself to us in the person of Jesus, son of Mary–betrothed but yet unwed. Jesus suffers an ignominious death; his triumphal entry into Jerusalem is undone within the week. The glory of god disclosed in the suffering of the cross–such is our standard. Jesus spurned the crowds and seemed to do everything within his power to avoid being crowned as a king during his ministry. Instead, he was crowned by the Roman soldiers and mocked as king of the Jews while on the cross.

Bird takes this purportedly upside-down view of glory, and he encourages the reader to see god at work in our ordinary circumstances. He draws on his own experiences of suffering–those caused by external circumstances and those from his own hand–to demonstrate the glory of god in the mundane and the difficult. Insofar as that is Bird’s aim, YGTG is useful.

This isn’t to suggest that the work isn’t without its problems. One has to wonder whether the appearance of YGTG at this political moment is itself in part a product of the reaction against institutions. Take note of this passage:

The teachers who have the greatest impact on our lives are not always standing in pulpits or guiding us through Romans during a Sunday morning Bible study. They’ve written no books, earned no degrees, wouldn’t be invited to lecture at a Christian university. They are strangers to the religious system. They lack the credentials to garner interest among churchgoing people. They don’t speak Christianese. (29)

All of which is true, as far as it goes. But it feels rooted in a world characterized by Nichols’ The Death of Expertise–a world in which established institutions are disempowered and power itself is “democratized.” And so, Bird “meets Jesus” at mile twenty of the Boston Marathon (81). And so, the entire world is sacral (122-124). Neither of which are necessarily wrong–simply not explicated sufficiently in the text.

Altogether, Your God is Too Glorious introduces readers to a new perspective, in which god dwells gloriously in terrestrial realm and in our material poverty. Bird aptly writes: “We descend into his presence. Where the lowly are, there he is. Where the common duties of life are performed, he is at work.” (63) For a simple introduction to a theology of the cross, Your God is Too Glorious serves well.

Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Books through the Baker Books Bloggers program. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255

Review: The Unity of Theology (2017)

Theodore James Whapham, The Unity of Theology: the Contribution of Wolfhart Pannenberg: Fortress Press, $79.00 (2017)

Entering seminary, I was mostly ignorant of the theological scholarship of the last century or so. Sure, as any theology dork growing up in the internet-era would, I had a passing knowledge of the heavy-hitters:  Calvin, Luther, and Augustine. I could name Bonhoeffer, mispronounce Barth, and (on a good day) acknowledge Bultmann for you. Simply, my “knowledge” of theology was as wide as it was deep–great in neither regard, but perhaps better than some.

That changed with access to the seminary’s library. Suddenly, a plastic card in my wallet granted a repository of theological riches, of which I had previously been ignorant.[1] One of the first authors I stumbled upon over the course of my studies was this German named Wolfhart Pannenberg. I picked up his famous Jesus–God and Man, rifled through thirty pages, and put it down because it was far too dense. I chanced to find Pannenberg’s Systematic Theology, in which his sections on faith, hope, and love spoke to me in a way that few other theologies had. I decided then that Pannenberg would be one of those figures in whose works over time you soak, and I’ve mangaged some progress to that effect.

Some may have a similar experience to my own. They may find Pannenberg initially overwhelming but may perhaps discover a seed in his work that’s just intriguing enough to warrant the slow, methodical reading necessary for Pannenberg. Whapham’s 2017 work The Unity of Theology is an accessible, wide-reaching appraisal of Pannenberg’s corpus that can assist a student of the German theologian.

Whapham traces Pannenberg’s development as a theologian across five categories:  revelation, christology, methodology, anthropology, and systemization. Generally, Whapham orders his interpretation within each category according to Pannenberg’s major work of that category. And so, for christology, Whapham pays careful attention to Jesus–God and Man; for revelation, Revelation as History; and so on. The order of categories broadly orders Pannenberg’s development chronologically, as well. As a result, the reader can follow Pannenberg’s trajectory throughout his career, from where he enters the academic scene with his coauthored Revelation as History to his magnum opus, the three-volume Systematic Theology.

Unity of Theology also devotes attention throughout to four prominent themes of Pannenberg’s work–namely, his motif of anticipation, the public nature of theology, interdisciplinarity, and his unique treatment of diversity and unity. Each of these themes run as a thread from one end of Pannenberg’s corpus to the other, and together they shed light on how he understands the place of theology in the academy in particular and the world in general.

Altogether, Unity of Theology serves as a valuable contribution to studies in Pannenberg. Whapham succinctly and admirably sketches the major contours of Pannenberg’s work, paying careful attention to his major publications. For a grasp on Pannenberg’s relevance to his own moment in the academy as well as to his influence in today’s theological landscape, Unity of Theology is an adequate work for the task.

[1] I am a huge proponent of libraries, academic and otherwise. Make use of your local libraries. Many universities offer community access, and there are thousands of books available at a typical major university. The patient working-through of a book far outweighs the quick glance, the skim, and the halfway-understood glimpses that pass for reading on the internet.

I received a complimentary edition of this work in exchange for an honest review.

On Heresy

If you’ve spent any amount of time in the theological ghettoes of social media, you’ll have certainly come across threads in which “Heresy!” or “Heretic!” is bandied about with a frequency far disproportionate to its normal, everyday use. For various reasons, the term’s usually wielded by more conservative theologues; simply, the “conservation” impulse inherent in conservative streams of thought spends more energy manning the fences of orthodoxy than similar impulses in liberal streams. Nevertheless, “Heretic!”, especially in the digital context, functions primarily as an opprobrium, a “caveat lector.” I think this represents a departure, ironically enough, from the traditional modes in which accusations of heresy were used.

To justify that position, however, requires that we take a step back and look beyond the scope of our current moment. First, I’ll characterize this moment of the church–a church simultaneously present and absent, physical and digital. Then, I’ll offer two understandings of heresy: one prior to today and the one in use at the moment. Finally, I’ll close with a couple of correlative thoughts on the matter.

We are fortunate to live in the time of mass media. The benefits to the world from easy global communication are immeasurable, and we each have access to a world of knowledge at the tips of our fingers. For the church, this digital proximity has engendered a sense of the global, transcultural body of Christ. For that, we ought to be thankful. Modes of Christianity–theological paradigms, church structures, social witnesses–which would have remained invisible within our local context, are now immediately available thanks to the advent of social media. Questions we would have never thought to ask, ways of being in the world that would have never occurred to us–these are now shifting our perceptions and our expectations of Christian life.

All of which can remain largely abstract, as far as it goes. For the most part, such questions remain ethereal but for the genuinely interested. Nevertheless, this perpetual presence affects those of us whose minds have been shaped by the cell phones in our pockets. Now, we exist simultaneously in two worlds:  our local, embodied environment and our digital sphere. The phone constantly pulls us from one environ to the other. It disrupts our physical bonds, distracting us from the person in our midst. The immediacy of the flesh-and-blood relationship we have with those with whom we worship on a weekly basis competes with the pseudo-intimacy of our social media relationships, those cultivated strictly through–or mediated through–an online forum, in which one can carefully and artificially manicure their being in a categorically different manner than one’s embodied presentation to us.

An artificial intimacy crafted online has the capacity to assume duties that, properly exercised, belong to the person near you. The local church, as the local gathering of people belonging to Christ, promotes a type of personal co-involvement only achievable by means of extensive communion, of being-near and living-near. When we speak with another person, when we communicate with them and read their body language as we hear their voice, we “comprehend” them in a manner impossible merely through artificial channels. Worshipping alongside, serving alongside, living alongside–the people with whom we share our lives from week to week to month to year become more real to us than an avatar ever could. The difficulties of real life relationships, the frustrations, the complexities–in other words, the very things that can be filtered out, muted, and otherwise ignored online–must be worked through, or the relationship fails. The temptation to replace the embodied relationships of your local context with the digital mutual following of the internet weighs heavily. Whereas the person in your midst has an obligation, simply by virtue of their shared involvement in the world with you (among other reasons), to love you, to help you, to counsel you–your online community is under no such obligation, although such an obligation may be felt by virtue of pseudo-intimacy.

In terms of the church, your local collection of believers–the ones with whom you’ve bound yourself to the apostles’ teaching and to each other (cf. Ac. 2.42ff)–has obligations that reach merely as far as that body extends. In other words, the life and worship of a certain church are coextensive with, in this case, its discipline. Mutual submission is the fundamental political character of the church. Members of the local spiritual body are obligated to each other by Christ, and so, when a member of this body transgresses the limits appertaining to this body, the body (through whatever mechanisms it chooses for itself, such as an elder board, diaconate, or whatever) is obligated to treat the matter.

How, then, do these ecclesial obligations change or appear to change in our new context? For one, felt obligations are augmented by the entrenchment of social media in everyday life, precisely because of the pseudo-intimacy that grows from our second, digital lives.

For another, and I believe these two causes are connected and feed into each other, the conception of the ‘body of Christ’ as a ‘spiritual body’ gives credence to the idea that we are equally-bound to discipline and exhort the avatar brother as we are the enfleshed brother. I would suggest that such considerations are prompted by a naive, or perhaps sentimental, perspective of Christian brotherhood. Exercising spiritual authority–for the act of discipline in local context functions as an act of authority–in a digital context relies on a view of the spiritual body that effectively disembodies it. The structures of the local church do not bear, because this kind of conversation takes place outside of the bounds of the local church; it transcends both bodies.

Which is precisely the problem. Divorcing spiritual authority from authority structures is fertile ground for authoritative abuses. One may, and frequently will, retort that such spiritual authority derives from Scripture. In application, however, a functionally anonymous figure appears from the digital landscape to mandate that another person submit–not merely to Scripture (if their interpretation is correct) but to the authority of this anonymous individual rather than to the spiritual authority vested in Figure X by the church body to which our example belongs. In other words, the Scripturally-mandated means of authority are subverted, replaced by a disembodied voice.

I’ve focused so closely on church discipline because the act of declaring something heretical or somebody a heretic is an act of church discipline. That is, historically speaking, to be named a heretic was coterminous with excommunication; somebody declared outside the bounds of orthodoxy was ipso facto declared outside the bounds of the church body. Functionally, to call somebody a heretic was to censure, as it were, with the effect of removing them from the worshipping body, from receiving the elements of communion, etc.

It was never simply a statement of disapprobation (“You shouldn’t believe that”) nor, in its proper use, the voice of a single individual (“I don’t think you should believe that”). More, at least as far as its etymology was concerned, it was not limited merely to “wrong belief,” as it has traditionally been taken. αἱρετικός, at least as late as the apostle Paul, meant “one who causes divisions” in Titus 3.10, which suggests the emphasis being not so much the false doctrine itself but the political effect within the body of Christ, subverting the unity essential to its proper function. To call one a “heretic,” therefore, was not to say, “You hold wrong doctrine,” full stop, but to say, “Your profession of this doctrine undermines the credibility of the church; therefore, you’re removed until you repent.” In other words, “Heretic!” was a far more serious charge than we experience today, one in which the offender was barred from the life of the church.

In the digital discourse, “Heretic!” means not “This person is now being placed under church discipline” but, typically, “I strongly disagree with this person’s theology”. Among more grounded theologues, particularly those who have spent a fair amount of time in pre-Reformation theology, to call somebody a heretic may retain its original force, such that it says you believe they should come under church discipline. But the structures of evangelicalism especially do not lend themselves to censures of any effect–any effect, that is, other than the autonomous exclamations of “Heresy!” that attend to any theology thread worth its perusal. In the absence of strict structures of authority, at the very least those of the local church (not to mention those that transcend single congregations–i.e., a regional presbytery), the only recourse for those for whom the digital competes with the physical is the “caveat lector” mentioned above. That is to say, informal mechanisms of opprobrium, obloquy, and stigmatization are the means whereby a contemporary church stripped of its governing authority (by competition with the digital space) can enforce the boundaries of proper church life.

By warning all within earshot that a particular author or individual is heretical, the hope would be that others would avoid falling into the same trap (per 1 Cor. 5), but it fails insofar as the purpose of church disciple–formally exercised–is primarily the restoration of the offender, not the protection of others. Such digital excommunication fails to achieve the intended effect precisely because its pseudo-intimacy fostered in social media has not, before things became difficult, engendered the kind of hands-on, risky love necessary for reconciliation. Abiding through difficulty in addition to living-near and being-near, which are both essential to a healthy church, are precisely those features inherently missing in digital intimacy, such that discipline carried out over the internet lacks the purposeful, aiming-for-which necessarily undertaken in a (healthily) structured church’s discipline. Digital discipline serves merely as “Caveat lector” rather than “Oramus pro tibi, amamus te.” And that loving consternation properly issues forth from a heart shaped by physical proximity in worship, in service, in life.